HE sector faces more uncertainty after axing of minister

The higher education sector faced further upheaval last week as Dr Blade Nzimande was dropped as minister of higher education and training in a mini cabinet reshuffle announced by President Jacob Zuma, a move which has elicited criticism and praise in equal measure.

The higher education sector in South Africa has been the site of widespread instability and protest over the past two years over the issues of university tuition fees and what is termed the ‘decolonisation’ of higher education. A report of a judicial commission of inquiry – the Heher Commission – into the feasibility of tuition-free higher education was handed to Zuma at the end of August. He is facing increasing pressure to make its findings public.

At least three universities – Stellenbosch University, Central University of Technology in the Free State and North West University – have announced fee increases for 2018.

Nzimande, the only cabinet minister to be fired in the reshuffle, was replaced by former minister of home affairs and past deputy minister of higher education from 2010-2012, clinical psychologist Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize. The new deputy minister is Buti Manamela, a former student activist and youth leader.

Not unexpected

The axing of Nzimande was not unexpected. As the general-secretary of the South Africa Communist Party, or SACP, which, together with the Congress of South African Trade Unions or COSATU, is in a tripartite alliance with ruling African National Congress or ANC, Nzimande has been at loggerheads with Zuma over what is commonly referred to in South Africa as 'state capture'.

Together with COSATU, the SACP publicly called for Zuma to resign in March after he sacked Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas while they were in London on an investors’ road tour.

In July, Nzimande gave an interview with a weekly newspaper in which he said he was wrong about supporting Zuma. Nzimande was influential in securing Zuma’s position as president in 2007, having lobbied with the ANC Youth League, COSATU and the ANC Women’s League to have him become the leader of the ruling party and the country’s president.

“Had we known certain things we know now, we would have acted differently,” Nzimande said then.

Mothepane Seolonyane, executive director of Higher Education Transformation Network or HETN, said in a statement that the removal of Nzimande was “most regrettable but not unexpected in the current political climate of the country".

“The sudden removal of Dr Nzimande is bound to affect the higher education sector and we hope that the new incumbent will not seek to radically change or reverse the immense policy milestones achieved by Dr Nzimande and his management team,” Seolonyane said.

HETN expressed its gratitude for Nzimande’s contributions to the development of the South African higher education, further education and skills development sectors, as well as the human resource developmental programmes.

South African Students Congress or SASCO President Thabo Moloja also commended Nzimande and his team in the department for their efforts at transforming the sector and their resolve in increasing access to higher education for poor and working-class students. Moloja noted that student funding had been increased through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, from R300 million (US$22 million) in 2009 when Nzimande became minister to almost R15 billion in 2017.

The SASCO president said his organisation believes the experience of his successor in government will be utilised in the best interests of students and steer the ship towards the attainment of free education.

The ANC Youth League on Twitter welcomed the reshuffle, saying the changes would lead to free higher education: “ANCYL welcomes the changes with high hope that the new HE Min & Dep Min will speed up the process of free education for the poor & the needy.”


While in office Nzimande was instrumental in the building of two new universities, the unlinking of the Medical University of South Africa from the University of Limpopo to create the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, and the building of 12 new TVET – technical and vocational education and training – college campuses.

Referring in part to Zuma’s delay in releasing the fees commission report, Moloja said the latest cabinet reshuffle seemed to confirm that issues relating to students were not a priority for the president.

Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, said cadre deployment by the African National Congress government had meant that management capacity of the Department of Higher Education and Training was weaker now than it was in 1997.

He also blamed Nzimande for crippling the NSFAS. Cloete said between 2010 and 2014 there was a collapse in loan repayments, estimated by the Treasury to reach R3.7 billion by 2015.

“His main contradiction was that he visited and pontificated about the virtues of the Cuban higher education system but he never told us that Cuba was spending over 4% of GDP [gross domestic product] on higher education while South Africa was pending 0.73% on higher education – this contributed directly to the fees crisis,” he said.

To his credit, said Cloete, Nzimande stood up to those who demanded free higher education for everybody, including the rich.

According to Cloete, Nzimande’s greatest achievement has been the expansion of the post-school education system.

This includes the doubling of the size of the as yet fairly low-quality TVET system, he said.

With regard to universities, in 2010 there were 986,559 university students which grew to 1,132,422 by 2015. College student figures rose from 404,849 to 826,110 during the same period.

But expansion comes at a cost.

Emeritus Professor in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town, Johan Muller, said Nzimande "ignored" a key lesson from the higher education system and from Africa: "To expand access without investing in quality academic staff is to saddle the system with a burden it won’t escape for the next 50 years,” he told University World News.

Belinda Bozzoli, MP and opposition Democratic Alliance shadow minister of higher education and training, said the removal of Nzimande served as proof of the government’s reluctance to resolve the numerous problems facing South Africa’s higher education sector.

Bozzoli said in a statement that Mkhize could help revive the sector by fighting for more funding for the sector, which the National Treasury and the Department of Higher Education and Training had established was underfunded by R35 billion per annum.

“That’s not even taking into account the additional funding which will probably be recommended by the fees commission,” said Bozzoli.

Release the report

Bozzoli said the new minister should also insist on the release of the fees commission report by the president.

“Some universities have already announced fee increases with no indication from the president as to whether they will be assisted in covering their increasing costs,” she said.

Delaying the release of the report will only result in more deserving students being shut out of tertiary institutions and facing unemployment, she said.

Bozzoli said Mkhize should urgently tackle instability and poor governance at key institutions as part of a commitment to excellence. Her comments come in the wake of violent protests which have rocked numerous institutions over the past two years, most recently, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology which was closed last week.

Further challenges included improving quality of education and accommodation shortages at TVET colleges and rooting out corruption in the sector, particularly among the Sector Education and Training Authorities whose irregular expenditure had reached an all-time high, she said.